The news about air quality in the North Carolina mountains has
been bad for years, but it's been of the sort that some people too
readily discount. Warnings from scientists and environmentalists
just don't convince some people.
So the trees on the high peaks are dying. Maybe it's just bugs,
the skeptics might say. And there are lots of other trees.
So the views are obscured sometimes. There are other days when
you can see nearly to Kentucky. And why did they call those
mountains the Smokies, anyway?
Sure, the experts say that poor air quality will hurt tourism. So
why, doubters might ask, is Great Smoky Mountains the most visited
national park in the country, and where do those traffic jams on the
Blue Ridge Parkway come from?
But the doctors and other health officials who spoke to a state
Senate committee on mountain air quality last week
sounded an alarm that ought to be heeded even by those who tend to
discount ''treehuggers'' as alarmists. These were people who see the
effects of air pollution in the state's mountains day after day --
in their patients struggling with unusually high rates of serious
Officials at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park have been
warning visitors for a few summers now that on the days when air
pollution is at its worst, they could risk their health by hiking,
climbing, bicycling and engaging in other strenuous outdoors
The doctors told legislators that for people who live in the
mountains year round, those risks are very real. They reported
unusally high death rates from chronic lung diseases such as
emphysema and asthma, and said that a larger share of mountain
residents die of pneumonia and influenza than people in any other
section of the state. Smoking is not the main culprit; the 17
counties in the state's Western region have the lowest rate of fatal
And it's not just the elderly who are victims. Allergists report
that North Carolina, and particularly its mountain counties, has
''epidemic'' rates of asthma among children.
It's sadly ironic that breathing in North Carolina's mountains --
where tourism blossomed partly because of the clean, fresh air --
has become a hazard to people's health.
The main sources of the air pollution in the mountains have been
pretty well documented. Among them are coal-fired power plants and
emissions from too many vehicles.
Sen. Dan Robinson, a Democrat from Jackson County, drew what
should be the obvious link between the warnings we've been hearing
about obscured mountain views and the health problems the doctors
were describing. If a ''visibility standard'' could be established
and enforced, he said, not only tourism but also health conditions
If air pollution is so bad that we can see it, it can't be good
for breathing. Air pollution that kills trees probably isn't healthy
These are warnings that no one should discount.